The Weight Watcher’s Guide to Reducing Poverty

scaleWeight Watchers has been around for over 50 years. While other dieting schemes have come and gone, the iconic symbol of successful weight loss remains. The company itself attributes that success to strength in numbers. It tells potential participants what they already know. Losing weight alone is no fun, and can be hard to stick with. It offers a group support solution – participants are “encouraged and inspired by people like you, losing weight together.”

The New England Journal of Medicine empirically established that social relationships have a powerful impact on weight gain. Researchers found that friends had the greatest impact on obesity and that the type of friendship made a difference.

It isn’t like we really needed a study. Just look around and you will see groups of people who are drawn together in common interests or goals. This is just as true for people in long term poverty. Researcher Reeta Wolfsohn calls this a poverty mindset. Someone with a poverty mindset lives life predominantly without any thoughts of change, of improvement or of creating a different or better future. Wolfsohn surmises that these families see an inherent message from the universe that this is as good as it gets: don’t ask for or expect more.

This does not happen only in the home. Schools in many inner-city neighborhoods are dead-ends. Instead of equipping poor children with the skills they need to escape poverty, bad schools lower their expectations and sink their hopes. Schools can be lifelines out of poverty, but they can also be lifeless houses of detention.

We learn from those around us, and children from families and schools where everyone seems stuck will absorb that belief system. If you grow up in a home where it is believed hard work will lead to a better life you see value in tackling formidable barriers. In contrast, people who have accepted they will always be poor feel it is a waste of energy. Although it is a negative influence it feels familiar and safe. People in poverty look at life as financially static.

If people surround themselves with others like them, and that affects their willingness to make changes, even positive ones, how can we help people see their potential and work to improve their lives?

The Family Independence Initiative project has done just that with its model to recruit working poor families and let them self-organize into peer support groups. After 22 years working in an anti-poverty agency Maurice Lim Miller, founder of the Family Independence Initiative, looked for a new way to generate greater self-sufficiency. Contending that no one gets out of poverty alone, Miller wanted to enroll families in groups so that they could turn to each other for help, instead of to a caseworker or a program.

In 2011 the New America Foundation published an article describing the Family Independence Initiative as “a nonprofit, community-based organization that is considered an on-the-ground social laboratory for new strategies to tackle poverty. At its core, the Family Independence Initiative approach is both radical and as old as our republic. Their philosophy is that low-income people can advance together if we re-ignite the resource sharing, mutual support, and role modeling that has historically helped immigrant families leave poverty behind. They model new policies that reward strength and initiative (as opposed to need) and are led by the families themselves, rather than programs or professional caseworkers.”

As part of the Family Independence Initiative, working poor families self-organize into peer support groups. They set personal goals for their families and obtain cash payments for reporting monthly progress. Small amounts of money can be earned when families report the actions they take. They receive about $25 to $30 in return for a range of about 50 actions they can document.

In designing the program Miller started with the question “What would the result be if families were … encouraged to turn to friends and social networks for help and direction?

FII tracked progress of participants across all study sites. Among the San Francisco cohort, the Family Independence Initiative reports that households
• increased their income by an average of 20 percent,
• half the school-age children improved their school performance,
• 3 out of 5 households reduced their debt, and
• 3 out of 4 increased their savings, from an average of $437 to $1,433

According to FII, families report that consistently charting their progress—and sharing that progress with the families in their monthly support group meetings—keeps them focused on making changes and moving forward.

The participating families can use their meetings and social network to help each other with overcoming barriers to their goals. After all, they are facing problems that they have faced individually. The difference is now they have formed relationships with others who are looking ahead and seeing hope for positive change. It turns the “poverty mindset” on its head among those who are working together.

Getting ahead in a world with growing inequality of opportunity and resources is formidable, and, like dieting, progress can be slow. The Family Independence Initiative shows participants there is strength in numbers. The participants surround themselves with believers that keep hope and success in sight.

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